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CARMEN – a movie in the making

Guest blogger and music supervisor Stephen Higgins reports from behind the scenes of Carmen, a movie currently in the making with star singers and an exciting plot.

England, 4th June

Strange times like these call for a rethink of what we in the opera world must do… All around the globe there are singers, directors, designers, conductors, musicians and highly skilled technical people watching their diaries empty in front of their eyes. When will the world return to normal? And what will normal look like?

Enter the brilliant and enterprising team at Bergen National Opera (BNO). No time here to sit around staring into cold cups of coffee. We must innovate. We must continue to produce work at our customary high level. We must keep collaborating with our wonderful artists both at home in Norway and around the world.

My involvement with BNO goes back to 2016, when I came to work on Madama Butterfly. And both the company and the city of Bergen had me hooked - and I have never looked back! So, when this whole fever season first started back in March (my how long ago that seems now!), I was delighted to be able to play my part in creating our version of the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria rusticana, with soloist Elisabeth Teige, which was seen around the world by thousands, and which celebrated the wonderful choruses of Bergen who are always the backbone of our productions in more ‘normal’ times.

But how to follow that?

The whole ‘zoom’ collage thing of seeing artists recording themselves and stitching it all together, whilst a wonderful idea to begin with, has seemingly now run its course and reached saturation level. Time to think up something new. So when Mary Miller called me to ask me to come up with a project involving film and opera I found myself thinking about our art form in yet another new way.

Between us we came up with the idea of basing this new project on Carmen - an opera beloved by all. But we are still not yet in a position where we could simply make a film of the original opera - with its massive chorus scenes, large orchestra and cast. I had to think of a new way of telling the story. Or even perhaps exploring what happened after the end of the opera?

A script was put together, with the help of the great John Ramster, who directed a magnificent new production of The Flying Dutchman for BNO a couple of years ago, and a director, the brilliant Anders Lindstad from Oslo, was found. And we started the process of imagining a world where we could work with all of the current restrictions of social distancing and limitations on people being too close to one another and create a coherent film. Here’s what we came up with:

Carmen Nett Kopi

Carmen was an internet sensation - singer, actress and Instagram influencer, adored and followed by thousands around the world. After a successful concert in Oslo five years ago she was tracked down and brutally murdered by an obsessive fan, Joseph Navarro, who was obsessed with her to the point of madness. Her recent, very public, relationship with Eskil Murov, a global tech billionaire pushed him over the edge, and after the murder he fled into hiding and has never been found. Mina, a brilliant young Norwegian investigative journalist, decides to delve deeper into the mystery of what really happened that night and uncovers vital evidence and information leading to the discovery of Joseph’s current hideout. The two of them strike up an online relationship and she is drawn into the dark and dangerous world of a killer.

So not your ‘normal’ Carmen! But as I said, these are not ‘normal’ times!

Carmen Singers Red

A fabulous cast has been assembled - featuring Ketevan Kemoklidze as Carmen, Freddie De Tommaso as Joseph, Andrei Kymach as Eskil and Beate Mordal as Mina. The fabulous Edvard Grieg Kor, alongside the Bergen Philharmonic Choir will provide the choruses. The Bergen Philharmonic will record the orchestra, conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen.

Andrei won last year’s prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition
Freddie has just been signed by a major international record company
Ketevan is one of the most sought after Carmens of her generation
Beate is one of Norway’s best sopranos, and a wonderful actress too!

What a line up!

Beate Og Eivind

One problem - all are in lockdown in different countries across Europe. Freddie is in the UK, Ketevan in Barcelona, Andrei in Kherson (a small town in Ukraine) and Beate in Oslo. And the choirs are in Bergen. This is a massive logistical enterprise and will take the co-ordinating skills of a military commander to bring together. But we are undeterred!

I write this on June 4th. So far this week we have achieved a lot. Just writing it down makes me breathless!

We recorded the BFO at Grieghallen, wonderfully held together by Eivind. A speedy turn around, adding a click track and a video of Maestro and sending the files out to the singers and choruses happened almost overnight, thanks to Elaine Maltezos who is responsible for capturing all these early recordings. Then Freddie recorded his vocals in England with me, Ketevan is doing hers in a studio in Barcelona tomorrow, Andrej similarly in Ukraine on Saturday and Beate on Monday in Oslo. I will be able to be at all of these sessions ‘virtually’!

The choirs have done their overdubs in Bergen ably assisted by BNO’s wonderful chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede.

Carmen Rehearsals Edvard Grieg Kor

And relax.

Next week the location filming begins. We have sourced local film crews in 3 countries to help us with this - local knowledge is essential here, as each of our three countries has different laws and restrictions in place regarding social gatherings. Anders and I will be able to direct and musically supervise these through an internet video link.

If we are still breathing calmly after all of that, then the editing, mixing, assembling and mastering can begin. I will report back next week for my next instalment.

Are we crazy, stupid, foolish or all three? Only time will tell.

But what I can say is that the bravery, encouragement, enterprising spirit and forward thinking from all the team at BNO, backing a ridiculous project like this to the max, is nothing short of brilliant.

Chatting to our amazing principal singers on WhatsApp this week made me realise that without dynamic companies like BNO enabling things like this to happen, these wonderful artists would be sitting at home in various states of Lockdown, watching Netflix and waiting for the world to change.

Which may not be for some time…

To be continued.

Video: Stephen clearing the shed to create a hideaway location for the villain Joseph Navarro (Freddie De Tommaso).

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